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The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present Hardcover – March 27, 2012
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Advance praise for The Age of Insight
“Eric Kandel has succeeded in a brilliant synthesis that would have delighted and fascinated Freud: Using Viennese culture of the twentieth century as a lens, he examines the intersections of psychology, neuroscience, and art. The Age of Insight is a tour-de-force that sets the stage for a twenty-first-century understanding of the human mind in all its richness and diversity.”
—Oliver Sacks, author of The Mind’s Eye and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
“In a polymathic performance, a Nobel laureate weaves together the theories and practices of neuroscience, art and psychology to show how our creative brains perceive and engage art—and are consequently moved by it. . . . A transformative work that joins the hands of Art and Science and makes them acknowledge their close kinship.”
—Kirkus Reviews (STARRED)
“A fascinating synthesis of art, history, and science that is also accessible to the general reader. A distinctive and important title that is also a pleasure to read”
—Library Journal (STARRED)
“Engrossing … Nobel-winning neuroscientist Kandel excavates the hidden workings of the creative mind. Kandel writes perceptively about a range of topics, from art history—the book’s color reproductions alone make it a great browse—to dyslexia. … Kandel captures the reader’s imagination with intriguing historical syntheses and fascinating scientific insights into how we see—and feel—the world.”
“A fascinating meditation on the interplay among art, psychology and brain science. The author, who fled Vienna as a child, has remained captivated by Austrian artists Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, each of whom was profoundly influenced by Sigmund Freud and by the emerging scientific approach to medicine in their day … [calls] for a new, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the mind, one that combines the humanities with the natural and social sciences.”
“Eric Kandel’s book is a stunning achievement, remarkable for its scientific, artistic, and historical insights. No one else could have written this book—all its readers will be amply rewarded.”
—Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
“Eric Kandel’s training as a psychiatrist and his vast knowledge of how the brain works enrich this thoroughly original exploration of the relationship between the birth of psychoanalysis, Austrian Expressionism, and Modernism in Vienna.”
—Margaret Livingstone, Professor of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School
“This is the book that Charles Darwin would have produced, had he chosen to write about art and aesthetics. Kandel, one of the great pioneers of modern neuroscience, has effectively bridged the ‘two cultures’—science and humanities. This is a task that many philosophers, especially those called ‘new mysterians,’ had considered impossible.”
—V. S. Ramachandran, author of The Tell-Tale Brain
“Eric Kandel has created a masterpiece, synthesizing brain, mind, and art like no one has before.”
—Joseph LeDoux, NYU, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self
“[This book] offers not only a stunning organic (in every sense of the word) view of fin de siecle culture but also opens new vistas in bioesthetics. It explores the often shocking neurology of the beautiful. And it shows how artist and scientist interlace in the common quest to discover the innards of reality. ‘I don’t render the visible,’ said Paul Klee, ‘I make visible.’ He echoed Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Euclid alone looked on beauty bare.’ Eric Kandel is of that company.”
“Nobel laureate Eric Kandel’s path-setting exploration of the connections between neuroscience and the painters Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka establishes a new frontier in the study of this all-important historical period. The shift toward a biological conception of self, which began in Vienna over a hundred years ago, has since decisively shaped our understanding of human nature.”
—Jane Kallir, director, Galerie St. Etienne
“With infectuous enthusiasm and limitless reverence for his multiple subjects, Kandel deftly steers the reader through a vast and inviting territory of science, the creative process, the mind, emotion, eroticism, empathy, feminism, and the unconscious. Years in the making, this highly readable book presents a magisterial study of brain, mind, and art.”
—Alessandra Comini, University Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita, Southern Methodist University
About the Author
Eric R. Kandel is University Professor and Kavli Professor at Columbia University and a Senior Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Kandel is founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, and recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on memory storage in the brain. He is the author of In Search of Memory, a memoir that won a Los Angeles Times Book Award, and co-author of Principles of Neural Science, the standard textbook in the field. He was born in Vienna and lives in New York with his wife, Denise.
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This is an excellent, but surprising, book. Its excellence has been documented by the many reviewers who agree with my five star rating. On the other hand, I would argue that a number of the book's negative reviews were written by persons who overlooked its very significant surprises, clearly stated in the book's closing chapter.
Foremost among these is a very clear rejection of that form of reductionism known as eliminative materialism; the view that the "mentalese" vocabulary of folk psychology is fated to be replaced by the lexicon of a "mature neuroscience."
"For every parent discipline such as psychology, the study of behavior, there is a more fundamental field, an anti-discipline -- in this case, brain science – that challenges the precision of the methods and claims of the parent discipline. Typically, however, the anti-discipline is too narrow to provide the more coherent framework or the richer paradigm needed to usurp the role of the parent discipline, whether it be psychology, ethics or law. The parent discipline is larger in scope and deeper in content and therefore cannot be wholly reduced to the anti-discipline, although it ends up incorporating the anti-discipline and benefitting from it. This is what is happening in the merger of cognitive psychology, the science of mind and neural science, the science of the brain, to give rise to a new science of mind.” p. 505
Further, whereas Kandel, in a personal conversation early in 1985, held to a firm and somewhat threatening distinction of "studies of science" and "studies of scientists," severely denigrating the latter, in 2012, he opens the door for a well-informed sociology of science:
"Rather than seeing a unified language and useful set of concepts connecting key ideas in the humanities and the sciences as the inevitable outcome of progress, we should treat the attractive idea of consilience as an attempt to open a discussion between restricted areas of knowledge. In the case of art, these discussions might involve a modern equivalent of (a Viennese salon) … artists, art historians, psychologists, and brain scientists talking with one another … in the context of new academic inter-disciplinary centers at universities." p. 506
The passages I've quoted seem to pull the rug out from under many of Kandel's critics. Far from an imperialist neuroscience of art, he seeks to promote a tolerant conversation involving neuroscientists, artists and historians and philosophers of art.
In the spirit of such conversation I might ask Kandel to clarify the nature, and direction, of the vectors of influence connecting Viennese painters at the turn of the 20th century and Harvard neuroscientists in the decades following WWII.
Using the art world and science world of turn of the century Vienna, and focusing on the three extraordinary artists who among them forged Austrian Expressionism -Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) - asks three questions:
*Does art have universal functions and features?
*If so, how are they arrived at and perceived?
*Are our responses to art always personal or are there general biological mechanisms within us that condition them?
Kokoschka called himself a "psychological tin can opener." He wanted to paint his subjects' inner reality. Just as Viennese writer Alfred Schnitzler invented the interior monologue, "stream of consciousness," to gain access to the inner thoughts and mood swings of his characters, so Kokoschka and Schiele especially, devised new artistic techniques to look behind the mask of a person's public persona. While they add little new to our understanding of their works, Kandel's comments on why they worked are sensible and, more important yet, given the eventual aim of the book (the book's arc) they provide a bridge to the later discussion of how in fact the brain processes visual information and, briefly, a discussion of "the brain as a creativity machine."
The discussion that follows occupies almost two-thirds of the book. After a relatively short (40 pp) discussion of the cognitive psychology of perception, it concentrates on how the brain receives, stores and organizes information, and the implications of this for the visual arts. Parts of what follows is heavy going but plodding through it familiarizes the reader for some very interesting comments.
I don't intend to summarize them, but I will give one example. Discussing the dominant role of line in art, Kandel observes:
"Artists have always realized that objects are defined by their shapes, which in turn derive from their edges. [But] In the actual world, there is no such thing as an outline: objects end and backgrounds begin without any clear line distinguishing the boundaries. Yet the viewer has no difficulty in perceiving a line drawing as representing a hand, a person, or a house. The fact that this sort of shorthand works so effortlessly tells us a lot about how our visual processing system works. ... [O]ur brain cells are excellent ... at reading lines and contours as edges. ... Each moment that our eyes are open, orientation cells in the primary visual cortex are constructing the elements of line drawings in the scene before us."
A book that ranges this widely forces the writer to move outside his or her chosen field of expertise quite regularly. There are risks in doing it but the payoff can be considerable. Kandel has done so boldly without distorting or moving beyond what current evidence has shown. He notes the achievements and observations of others, making it easy to trace where his own ideas and speculations come from. He notes what is speculation and what firm evidence. And he writes lucidly and, occasionally, very well.
Another thing I like about the book is the care that has been expended in producing it. Random House deserves applause for its support of the project, which cannot have been cheap. There are numerous color illustrations, works of art and diagrams of the brain, and black and white photographs and schematic drawings of the nervous system, etc. The cover incorporates Klimt's first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), one of his most seductive and lushly painted works, and the end papers reproduce a detail, rich in gold, from the dame work. A lovely touch: when Kandel discuses what makes a face attractive, he illustrates it with a photograph of his wife taken when she was much younger.
[This is the second book I have purchased and read this year on or about science where the presentation enhances the text. The other was George Dyson's magnificent history of the digital revolution, Turing's Castle (Pantheon, 2012).]
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